By Mary Kay Seales (previously published in France Today, June 29, 2016)
Do you love travelling to France, but shy away from the French Riviera because you think it’s all glitz and glamour?
Most people I talk to have the same reaction: Don’t I have to be a movie star or a millionaire to vacation there? My answer is always a resounding NO. You don’t have to be the Prince of Wales or Brad Pitt to enjoy this lovely stretch of the Mediterranean coastline.
Most travellers on a budget have no idea that the French Riviera, in addition to hosting the Cannes Film Festival and the Casino in Monte Carlo, is also a destination for those of us on non-millionaire budgets that still have to work for a living.
Here are my suggestions for three days on the French Riviera that will not cost you an arm and a leg, but that will leave you feeling refreshed in body and soul.
A Great Base
A sure-to-please base for your trip, a risk-free choice bar none, is the tiny seaside village of Villefranche-sur-mer. This pastel-colored postcard of a town lies between the larger and better-known cities of Niceand Monaco. To call it charming would be an understatement.
Hotels That Won’t Break the Bank
Though you could spend thousands of dollars a night for a room on the French Riviera, most of the cities and towns that dot this coastline can accommodate anyone’s budget, from student travelers to Kim Kardashian. Here are two moderately priced hotels in Villefranche:
This little hotel in the port area is perfectly situated away from the crowds. The lovely sea view rooms with French doors and balcons looking out on the harbor are a bargain at 100 euros, and that’s for high season. Garden view rooms are even less!
I love this little hotel where I have stayed with my family on several occasions as well as recommending it to friends. Sea view rooms here run from 85 to 110 Euros. The staff is friendly, the rooms are clean, there’s a little bar for a late-night drink, and it’s smack dab in the middle of everything.
Three Days and Three Hikes
Instead of heading to the casinos or the high-end stores, put on your walking shoes, a hat for the sun, and if you’re like me and can’t resist jumping in water whenever you see it, your bathing suit under your clothes. You’ll want to take a small daypack for a bottle of water, your camera and a towel if you plan on swimming. These hikes are each approximately 4 miles, but can entertain you for a whole afternoon with stops for photos, a picnic or lunch at a beachside café.
Note: Leave your passport and valuables in the room. Just take one credit card and/or some cash.
Day One: Hiking from Villefranche to Nice
Wake up at a leisurely pace. You’re on vacation after all! Have coffee and croissants with the locals at Le Surcouf across from the tourist office on Boulevard Princesse Grâce de Monaco. Pick up some bottled water and an International New York Times in the little newsstand next door.
The High Road or the Low Road?
You have two choices for walking to Nice. One is to simply follow Boulevard Princesse Grâce de Monaco over the hill and around the cape. You will have spectacular views of the sea on the way and can wind your way down into Nice on the other side.
An alternative is to take the coastal path, which starts from the port area of Villefranche. This trail meanders along the sea through pine forests and stone walkways. Beautiful!
After arriving in Nice, spend a few hours exploring the Cours Saleya market and other shops in the Old Town. Take a swim or a stroll along the seven-mile Promenade d’Anglais. Have lunch at one of my favorite restaurants in all of France, L’Eden, just outside the Old Town. You can enjoy an omelette au fromage while watching the waves crashing in and the whole world passing by.
To return to Villefranche, take the alternate route (if you haven’t had enough exercise for the day), or hop on the #81 or #100 bus that leaves from the bus stop at the Nice Port. It will drop you back at the park across from Le Surcouf in Villefranche near your hotel.
Note: All the modern buses on the French Riviera cost one euro. It’s a deal! With the convenient local trains and buses, you don’t really need to rent a car.
Day Two: Hiking Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat
It always surprises me that there aren’t more people on this well-groomed trail around Cap-Ferrat.
Take Bus #81 from the same stop across from Le Surcouf in Villefranche to the tiny, but sophisticated town of Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat. Walk out of town towards the water and past the port through the residential area, veering right at the fork in the road until you come to a large green gate that looks foreboding. It is approximately a one-mile walk to this gate. You will see that there is an entrance on the left, which will take you to the trail. And don’t worry! You aren’t trespassing.
There are numerous hidden beaches on this steep winding trail where you can take a dip if you’re so inclined. Watch for jellyfish, which like to hang out in these rocky areas.
This superb four-mile hike ends at a local beach, Plage de Passable, where you can have a plate of carpaccio de boeuf and a glass of chilled white wine, well deserved after the walk.
To return to Villefranche, hike up the hill to the road and catch the #81 bus. Easy!
Day Three: Hiking from Carnoles to Roquebrune-Cap-Martin
This is probably my favorite of the three hikes. You will need to take the local train from Villefranche to Carnoles, which will cost you approximately $10. The train station is conveniently located above the Villefranche beach area, and you can buy your ticket from the little machine at the platform.
Watch for your stop at Carnoles, and after getting off, walk toward the sea where you can pick up Sentier Le Corbusier, a trail that will take you east to Menton (save that for the next trip), or west to Monaco. Head west.
After 4 miles of absolutely stunning azure-blue sea views, you will come to the little beach of Roquebrune-Cap-Martin. Go for a swim, have lunch. There’s a great little restaurant here where you can catch a bite to eat before heading home. For me, there’s nothing better than sitting at this little cafe in my bathing suit, having a nice meal with wine after my hike and my swim.
To return to Villefranche, simply climb the stairs and catch the next train or the #100 bus.
Three days, three hikes, plenty of fresh air and exercise. You’ll feel great and you’ll not want to leave.
What to do at night in Villefranche
Skip the overpriced restaurants right on the waterfront and have dinner at Le Cosmo adjacent to the Hôtel Welcome. The food is consistently good and you still have a view of the water. Other places to try are Le Fille de Pecheur in the port or Le Roxy for a perfectly cooked pizza.
After dinner, join the locals for a movie at the open-air cinema in the ancient Citadel, a gigantic fortress that dominates this little town’s skyline. You can ask at the hotel for a schedule of the movies playing or check the sign outside the Citadel. Sometimes you get lucky and there’s a movie in English with French subtitles. Whatever it is, though, you’ll enjoy the experience of sitting in a castle on a warm summer evening with the Mediterranean Sea as a backdrop.
No glitz, no glamour, just soul-refreshing beauty all around. Don’t let the reputation of the French Riviera scare you away. Plan on spending two to three days here on your next trip to France. You may find that you’ll have to return every year, like me!